By JIM STOMMEN
MDD Contributing Writer
1st of 2 parts
Arthur Erdman, PhD, is the Richard C. Jordan Professor and a Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, specializing in mechanical design, bioengineering and product design. In July 2007 he was selected as the director of the Medical Devices Center at the university. Erdman has published more than 325 technical papers, three books, and holds more than 30 patents.
He currently has a number of ongoing projects, of which many are related to biomedical engineering and medical device design. He led the effort to create LINCAGES, a mechanism software design package that has been use worldwide. Erdman has been the chair of 11 Design of Medical Devices Conferences which are sponsored by the University of Minnesota each April.
MDD: What was the genesis of the Medical Devices Center?
Erdman: I've been here for 41 years on the faculty of the University of Minnesota and have been involved almost from Day One in something biomedical, and always have been interested in the translational side of things. I have worked over the years in almost every discipline in health sciences one way or another.
What a number of us had noticed over the years is that the university has fantastic clinical research, has fantastic biomedical and basic science research as related to med-tech, and here we're sitting in Minnesota with almost 500 companies that are focused on medical devices, one of the real centers for such work in the world. I also had spent a lot of time interfacing with industry in various ways, going to meetings, consulting and things like that, so I saw a need for a concentrated effort in applied, translational activities in medicine.
The university had done a strategic repositioning in about 2002 and enough of us had pressed the translational component that the University decided to invest about $5 million into a medical devices center. The center at that point in time wasn't necessarily a location, but more of an institute. I was blessed to be asked to direct the center, and my vision was to have central location, sort of a sandbox where engineers could be creative and work with medical experts and industry and eventually really be focused on the needs of our medical community. We're fortunate to have a setup at the university where engineering and health sciences essentially are across the street from one another that makes a huge difference. And we have a long history of how Medtronic got started at the university.
So we developed the Medical Device Center and over the years it has grown. We opened up in July of 2008 and have expanded already from about 2,800 square feet to 5,000 and it now appears we're going to be moving into a brand-new space of about 8,000 square feet. We have a really unique center.
Secondly, we have a conference, the Design of Medical Devices Conference, which started in 2001 and is the largest in the world for medical device design. It is a cross-discipline conference that in April 2012 was held for the 11th time. We had 1,140 people come over four days. Also, in the first two years of the center, we handed out $1.5 million in seed financing for faculty to do medical device-specific projects.
The last element is our very active MDC Innovation Fellows program, where this year we have eight early-to-mid-career experts doing 24/7 medical device development. In eight months, they have filed 60 patent disclosures, so it's a program on steroids.
MDD: You used the phrase translational, and it's one that people use in various ways, but it sounds to me like it has a very practical orientation to it, in that the goal is to come up with medical products.
Erdman: Yes, very much so. It's either starting with emerging thoughts in either engineering, science or medicine and turning them into products, which isn't an easy thing to do in an academic environment, or starting from scratch by banging on doctors' doors or watching surgeries and saying, "What do you need?" Then it's doing the hard work of changing what you hear into ideas, then prototypes and then more prototypes, usually doing testing ,then filing the intellectual property and trying to outlicense the IP or do start-ups.
MDD: You talked about going to docs and saying "What do you need?" but in setting up the center, has another big part been going to industry and saying, "Okay, how do we better serve your needs?"
Erdman: In our center, we have had well over 1,000 visitors every year, and many of those I think we figured 43% were from industry. We have had hundreds of industry visitors during our short existence. We have pretty good facilities for prototyping, so we have participated with industry. We're in the process of formalizing a program with a major firm in town to have our fellows actually walk alongside their engineers.
MDD: The heart of your efforts is the Innovation Fellows program. How are each year's Fellows selected, and how does the program work once they are on board?
Erdman: That's a fun discussion, and it's also timely because on May 19th, we had our recruiting weekend and we brought in 16 people we had a record number of applicants this year, 98 applicants. These are individuals who in some cases have cold turkey quit their jobs in order to come here. We've had people quit Boston Scientific, we've had people quit Medtronic; one of our current Fellows quit his surgical practice after almost eight years.
We don't pay a lot we pay a lot less than he was getting so these are people who for one reason or another want to transition. A number of our applicants this year are certainly mid-career or post-mid-career people who would be making equal sacrifices. In a lot of cases, they want to get back to their first love, which was innovation and working in new, niche spaces and maybe thinking about going from one industry to another or going from what they're doing to the early-stage innovation side or starting companies.
MDD: How do you define success for the Fellows?
Erdman: The first year of the program I had to really sell the program, because here we are in the first year and my dean is reminding me that this is, by far, the most expensive training program at the university. So in the beginning, I sold it on the fact that we were going not only to generate ideas and not only generate prototypes, but very mature ideas and prototypes because this is a very intense program in terms of knowing the patent landscape and knowing reimbursement and knowing disease incidences and so forth. Even though out of my previous lab, before MDC opened, we probably averaged one to two patents a year for years, there's no way that a faculty or staff member would ever have the time to do the extensive homework that the fellows now accomplish.
So I had to raise a lot of money early, and my "elevator pitch," if you will, was generating IP that was much more likely to hit it big. In the first year, as soon as we came up with an idea and had a reasonable prototype, we filed a provisional patent I had to show early success. After the first year, we had filed 15 patents and started a company. That start-up was off and running until a patent appeared that we didn't know about. Not that it killed off the idea totally, but it affected it enough that that particular fellow decided to take a too-good-to-turn-down offer from industry.
Nowadays it's clear, not only from the perspective of our deans but also the technology transfer office that what we promised is the case. Of course, we like to count the number of applications, number of provisionals, but also the number of start-ups, which is going to be a small number no matter what. We also measure on how we're giving back, so our fellows advise on senior projects and we do a lot of outreach.
A big measure is donations. We have two companies, Boston Scientific and St. Jude Medical, that have given us $50,000 each year, and we have in-kind donations to the center that now have a cumulative value of over $1 million in equipment and supplies that matters a lot. And then we got a big foundation gift last year to double the number of fellows to eight each year.
(In Part 2 of this interview next week, Art Erdman discusses the impact of regulatory requirements on medical innovation, the impact the medical device tax would have on R&D in the device industry, "angel" funding, the 3-D product visualization device he and Professor Daniel Keefe are developing, and the FDA's reaction to such initiatives.)
Published June 21, 2012